What Is Nervous-system Regulation—And How Do You Do It?

Health & Wellness

Experts offer actionable tips on how you can gain control of stress levels.

Last updated: 10 March 2023
7 min read
What Is Nervous System Regulation—And How Do You Do It?

If you're interested in learning about nervous-system regulation, chances are you've heard that the nervous system plays a pivotal role in your energy, mood and even athletic performance. Maybe you're feeling overwhelmed and overworked or even languishing and low. If you're looking for possible solutions, you've come to the right place.

Those solutions are coming up next but let's get one thing out of the way first: neuroscientists say that the concept of "nervous-system regulation" is so broad that it's almost meaningless. Basically, it's not a scientific term.

That's because your nervous system is a complex network of tissues and cells that control just about everything you do, including how you move your body, digest food, store memories, respond to stress and so on.

How To Regulate the Nervous System

So, nervous system regulation begs the question, what part of the nervous system are you trying to regulate, exactly?

When experts talk about nervous-system regulation, they're usually talking about creating a better balance between the sympathetic nervous system (associated with a "fight or flight" or "go go go" response) and the parasympathetic nervous system (involved in rest and recovery), said Arielle Schwartz, PhD, a clinical psychologist and yoga teacher.

Each of these systems is a component of the autonomic nervous system or the part of the peripheral nervous system that functions automatically without conscious awareness. And you need them both. The sympathetic nervous system has long garnered a bad rap for initiating the stress response. But it's also the reason you can run and dance. The parasympathetic nervous system allows you to rest up so you can do it all over again tomorrow.

Ideally, each system works together in harmony, like yin and yang. But you start to run into problems if you're constantly on high alert because continuous stress means continuous activation of the sympathetic nervous system. And, per a review in a 2016 issue of the journal Current Neuropharmacology, this can lead to inflammation that's associated with depression. Inflammation has long been linked to depression in a large body of research.

If you feel like you're zapped or burnt out, experts say that activating the vagus nerve (part of the parasympathetic nervous system that runs from your brain to your intestines) can help restore balance. This is because the nerve regulates our mood, lowers our heart rate and helps us rest.

"Many of us aren't trained to engage in practices that help us access the relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system", Schwartz said, noting that you need adequate rest and recovery for optimal athletic performance. "It is more difficult to flow or feel like you're in the zone when you aren't rested".

Here's how to activate the vagus nerve to create a more energised, less stressed state—perhaps you could even call it "regulated".

  1. 1.Get Cosy With Cold Water

    What Is Nervous System Regulation—And How Do You Do It?

    While the performance benefits of a cold shower are still up for debate among health experts and researchers, both Schwartz and Imanuel Lerman, MD, a neurologist at UC San Diego Health put cold water exposure at the top of their list for nervous-system regulation.

    "Cold water stimulates circuits in your brain that regulate negative emotion and makes your body more adaptable to extreme stress", Lerman said.

    The thinking behind this is that cold water creates a stress-and-recover response in the nervous system. This, in part, may enable you to recover from other stressors in life, so you're not stuck in a frazzled state.

    Schwartz explained that you don't need to dive head first into an ice pool to reap the benefits of cold water.

    "Put a cold washcloth on your neck or splash some cold water on your face", she said. And there's research to back this up. For instance, the researchers of a small-scale study—published in a 2018 issue of JMIR Formative Research—found that adding cold stimulation to the side of the neck (researchers used an electronic device) for just 16 seconds at a time can lower heart rate and may help manage stress.

    (Related: Should You Try an Ice Bath for Post-workout Recovery?)

  2. 2.Practise Deep Breathing

    What Is Nervous System Regulation—And How Do You Do It?

    "Regulating your breathing is a very direct way to interact with your nervous system", Schwartz said.

    In a sympathetic breathing pattern, your inhale is more emphasised than your exhale. This can be good during sport, when you need to quickly take in oxygen but when you're not competing, you want to emphasise long, slow exhalations, she explained.

    Long exhalations signal to the brain that you're safe because you wouldn't be able to breathe this way if you weren't thanks to the flight-or-fight response. This is one explanation why slower breathing (five to seven breaths per minute, compared to 12 to 14) reduced blood pressure in a Medical Hypotheses study.

    Try this: count to five as you inhale, then count to five as you exhale. Breathe like this for five minutes in the morning, afternoon and evening. You can also reserve this exercise for specific moments, like after a big work meeting or workout.

  3. 3.Improve Your Sleep Routine

    What Is Nervous System Regulation—And How Do You Do It?

    Lack of sleep wreaks havoc on the nervous system.

    Sleep is when your brain clears out inflammatory toxins, so sleep deprivation causes inflammation in the brain, said Lerman. This can lead to fatigue and difficulty with regulating emotions.

    To sleep better at night, Lerman suggested going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day and to save your bed for things like sleeping and reading. In short: keep work, screen time and snacks away from your bed if you can.

    (Related: Why Is Sleep So Important for Athletic Recovery?)

  4. 4.Commit to Cardio

    What Is Nervous System Regulation—And How Do You Do It?

    Your vagus nerve regulates your heart rate in response to exercise and other stressors. And the process of raising your heart rate during exercise, then having it return to normal, can make your body better at decreasing your heart rate following other types of stress. "The goal is to quickly return to homoeostasis after a stressful event", Lerman said. "Otherwise, stress can become chronic".

    This kind of conditioning is one possible explanation why people who exercise seem better able to manage stress and setbacks. People who exercised reported 1.5 fewer poor mental health days a month compared to those who didn't, according to a study of 1.2 million Americans in a 2019 issue of The Lancet.

    This is where cardio comes in. The American Heart Association suggests completing 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity a week (or a combination of the two) to maintain good heart health.

  5. 5.Instead of Procrastinating, Just Do It

    What Is Nervous System Regulation—And How Do You Do It?

    No, but really. Schwartz said that the brain is wired to avoid things that can cause harm in order to protect us and avoidance typically leads to further procrastination because it reinforces the thing we're avoiding. Whether it's a stretching routine or a nagging item on the to-do list, repeatedly avoiding the task can signal to the brain that the thing you're avoiding is a bad thing.

    This is partially why exposure therapy is so highly recommended for overcoming certain phobias: it reinforces that the thing you're avoiding is totally fine. Worse, you could experience an increase in stress hormones if the thing you're avoiding is a source of worry, per a study found in a 2017 issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.

    "But if you catch the urge to avoid, and do something anyway, you can move towards change on the nervous-system level by telling the brain that the activity is safe and positive", Schwartz said.

Words by Kiera Carter

What Is Nervous System Regulation—And How Do You Do It?

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Originally published: 2 March 2023

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